Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Fundamentalist Meets Jack Kerouac


In the summer of 2003, I threw my newly purchased duffle bag, a few books, and two bottles of Rumplemintz[1] into my car and began my Kerouacian journey with the vague idea that at the end I would find my home. Several months earlier, I had read On the Road, the Beat masterpiece by Jack Kerouac, and immediately knew that I needed to make a cross-country pilgrimage. As much as I wanted to approximate Kerouac’s journey, money, or lack of money, was going to be an obstacle. For example, hitch-hiking was out. Every time I have hitch-hiked (or picked up a hitch-hiker, for that matter) it has ended poorly, including being partially kidnapped in Colorado. And, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in hotels, I also needed cheap places to stay; unlike Kerouac, I didn’t have any friends in Denver waiting for me. I had a bed waiting for in my brother’s house in the suburbs of San Francisco, but, seeing how The City[2] is the “Mecca” for Bohemians of all stripes, I didn’t want to spend my entire time in San Francisco hanging out in the suburbs without any access to drugs and hippy chicks.

Although people, many people, were using the internet in 2003, I wasn’t. So, I spent many hours in Books-a-Million and Barnes & Noble researching travel guides and planning my pilgrimage. It was in a Barnes & Noble that I stumbled across the 2003 Hostelling USA. Now, like most people, I was unaware that youth hostels were a thing in the U.S. prior to that book. In fact, when I mention that I’ve stayed in youth hostels[3] around the country, I get odd looks followed by the inevitable statement, “I didn’t know there were any hostels here.” Anyway, the discovery moved my pilgrimage from the land of dreaming to the land of the possible. After planning, I concluded that my three month journey would cost a minimum of $1,600[4]. This was in April.

At the time, I was living in Pensacola and bartending at a nightclub. 2002, a year that had started great, had ended really badly for me. In late November, while attempting to miss a moose on the outskirts of Athens, GA[5], I hit a patch of black ice and drove my car into a ravine. The front end of my Pontiac Grand Am was wedged into the ravine, with the back end sticking straight up in the air. The one thing that saved me that night was that the first cop that showed up, whom I hadn’t called[6], was county and my car was still a few feet inside the city limits. He didn’t have jurisdiction and seemed really uninterested in me and my girlfriend outside of making sure that we didn’t need an ambulance. He sat in his warm car with the lights flashing, I guess to warn other motorists, although any other car would have had to have driven several yards off of the road before being in any danger of hitting my car or the two of us huddled together by a tree trying to stay warm. Although freezing, I was thankful that the city police took several hours to get there. I guess at four in the morning, it’s assumed that people who have had a car wreck and have been waiting in the freezing cold for several hours will naturally have red-shot and bleary eyes and be somewhat loopy. Regardless, my car was yanked out of the ravine by a tow truck, and I ended up using all of my money to get the car fixed because my insurance company refused the claim[7]. That started a chain reaction involving not having money for things like my rent; which led to me being evicted from my apartment, and ultimately having to move back into my parent’s house in Pensacola; which also meant that I had to break a theatre contract that I had signed[8]. And that’s the short version of how I ended up bartending while living in my parent’s house in Pensacola at the age of 27.

In my memory, my five months back in Pensacola feels like years. So much happened, both good and bad, cool and uncool, and I’m resisting the urge to write paragraphs about how I learned that drinking tequila on the beach without first putting on sunscreen is a really bad idea; dating a stripper comes with a whole host of never before thought of problems; and bartending at a large club is incredibly eventful and fun[9]. I'm sure that some of those things will make it into the extended version after I rewrite all this. But, for now, I'll stick with the most important bits. And, the most important thing that happened during those five months happened during the first month and involved the administrator of the fundamentalist Christian school that I had attended from my first fourth grade year all the way through to my high school graduation.

When I arrived back in Pensacola I was broke – both in terms of money and existentially. Not only did I have to suffer the embarrassment of moving back into my parent’s house, but my acting career, for the first time, was beginning to go backwards. I felt lost and scared of being lost. I showed up at my parent’s house with less than fifty bucks to my name, and that had been given to me on the way down by a girl in south Georgia who believed herself to be my girlfriend. My parents were on the road, and had graciously left me some food – even food that a vegetarian could eat. But I knew what they left me would last less than a week. Being dirt poor meant that being a vegan was off the table, and so I took my money and stocked the freezer full of frozen cheese pizzas that cost a dollar each at Wal-Mart[10]. The next day I walked all over downtown Pensacola filling out applications at every restaurant and bar I passed. I then moved to the outskirts of town. After a few days of no luck, I even began filling out applications at chain restaurants[11]. With no money, and when not filling out applications, I was in my parents’ house alone. Sometimes, I would walk to the grocery store across the street just to be around people. To make matters worse, my parents had suspended their cable while they were on the road, and so I was left with pretty much nothing but my thoughts. At nights, I couldn’t sleep I was so lonely. There were many nights when I would be in physical pain from loneliness, anger, and fear. I didn’t understand why, but I knew that I was empty and that something was wrong with me as I would curl up on the floor of my parent’s living room and scream while tears ran down my face. Literally scream[12]. It was those nights that prompted me to use my precious gas and drive the twenty miles to my old school.

When I stepped inside the front office, the lady at the desk who had known me since I was a boy turned away. One of my old teachers, coming around the corner, stopped mid-sentence, gaped at me, and then walked back to where he had come from. In an office filled with people who had known me for years, no one said a word to me. No one would even look at me past the initial glance. I stood there fighting back tears as a hatred of Christians filled my throat. And then Mr. Ronald Bean walked out of his office and, sticking his hand out in greeting, said, “Hi, John. It’s great to see you. Come into my office and let’s catch up.” Here’s the thing - I barely knew Mr. Bean. He had taken the job of school administer the year after I had graduated. Out of all the people in that office, he had the least invested in my life.

We sat in his office and he asked me about my life and how I was doing. We talked about basketball and the upcoming Super Bowl, and for the first time in weeks, I felt human. And, for a brief time, I was no longer lonely. I didn’t want to leave that office. It was the safest place I’d been in years, and Mr. Bean, outside of my family, was the closest thing I had to a real friend and I was painfully aware of it. For the first time in years, someone gave of themselves to me without any hope of anything in return. I don’t remember talking about God or the Bible while in his office, but I do know that from that day on, the love of Christ that Mr. Bean demonstrated to me was never far from mind, whether I wanted it to be or not. From that point on, whenever the Holy Spirit would jolt me with the reality of God, God’s wrath, and God’s love, that moment was one of the touchstones used in my heart and life.

A few days after that, I received a phone call from the human resource lady at Seville Quarter asking me to come in for an interview. It was a little odd to me that an application that I had filled out over three weeks earlier (in fact, Seville was the very first place that I had applied) was now leading to an interview. My experience in the service industry is that if you don’t get a job right away, you ain’t getting one. There is no shortage of applications walking through the door on any given day, and so there’s no need for managers to go very far in the large stack of applications collecting dust. So, at the end of the interview and after I was offered a job, I asked the lady why she had called me in for an interview. She told me that while throwing out old applications she noticed the words “actor” and “theatre” on mine, and wanted to meet an actor. That’s the exact opposite of my experience at the Starbucks located inside the Barnes & Noble on Airport Blvd. in Pensacola. That Starbucks was the closest I got to a job prior to Seville. The manager of the Starbucks wanted to hire me, but the store manager had to sign off on my employment, too[13]. During the interview, the store manager kept looking at my application and shaking his head. He said, “You have a really spotty work history. You only stay at a job for a few months.” I tried to explain to him that those jobs were plays and that it wasn’t my fault that plays generally only have a short run. He didn’t seem to understand or care, or both. Anyway, Seville Quarter hired me, and I was thrilled.

When you grow up in Pensacola, Seville Quarter inhabits an almost mythical place for teenagers, especially for teenagers growing up in fundamentalism. Well, after having worked there, I can say that, for good or bad, the reality of Seville Quarter lives up to the myth. In fact, it probably surpasses it. It was a crazy place to work. I’m still resisting the urge to derail my own post by adding thousands of additional words relating anecdotes from my time working there, but I’m back at Seville Quarter in an attempt to quickly return to the opening two paragraphs. I will indulge myself a tiny bit and say that although I have met many famous people in my life, those few months working at Seville provided the single highest concentration of meeting famous people in my life to date. People go to Seville Quarter to party, and famous people tend to seek out the biggest and most debauched party an area has to offer.

Working there meant that I became a part of that party, and it also meant no more lonely nights. The one problem was that as the new guy on the totem pole, I was “stuck” in the restaurant part of the club working the early/dinner shift. On one hand, I liked this. Since I generally had to be at work around four in the afternoon, and since by the time the party started the restaurant part was more of a rest area for drunk people on their way to and from the various "rooms" in the club, I was generally let go by one a.m. and was able to join the party. On the other hand, this meant that I joined a party in full swing with my wallet filled with my tips from the evening. I wasn’t dumb enough to spend what I needed to pay my bills, but I was dumb enough to spend everything else. Even with a 50% employee discount, impressing girls and ensuring no more lonely nights isn’t cheap. So, when my Kerouacian pilgrimage went from being a dream to a reality in that same Barnes & Noble that had refused to hire me, I knew that something would have to change if I was going to save up the requisite cash.

I had two jobs waiting for me back in Greenville – delivering pizzas during the day and bartending in the evenings. I needed a place to stay, though. Preferably, a free place. I called my ex-wife, and asked if she had a room to spare. She did. And, adding to my long history of blatantly and disgustingly using her, I moved in, knowing full well that thoughts of reconciliation weren’t far from her mind. I, on the other hand, had zero desire to rekindle any relationship, and justified myself in my mind by telling her that my moving in was purely pragmatic and not a sign that I wanted to get back together. Never mind what my actions told her.

Working two jobs and essentially spending no money meant that it only took a little less than two months to save up enough cash for my pilgrimage. What little free time that I had during those two months were spent at anti-war protests, a Jesse Jackson led march to put pressure on the Greenville County Council to recognize MKL Day[14], and the occasional day or so at a Marxist commune in the mountains of North Carolina. I also took pleasure in accosting the Bob Jones University students that I would see around town; I would angrily accuse them of being hateful people who were harmful to society. Attempting to save them from BJU and Christianity, I would try and convince them that the God they believed in was nothing more than an ancient myth made up by scared, ancient people groups who couldn’t handle the violence of the ancient world. With my anguish during December and January in a rearview mirror that I tried not to glance at; my activism and proselytizing felt satisfying and justifying, and based on the way I was living my life, I began to imagine myself a modern day Jack Kerouac[15]. Mr. Bean was a problem, though. Often, when I would harass Christians, his kindness to me would, for some unknown reason, pop into my head. He was a minor annoyance, though, because my pilgrimage across the country to San Francisco was excitedly looming and I assumed that the Mr. Bean’s of the world were not invited. I was wrong.             


[1] I’m proud to say that it’s been years since I last had any Rumplemintz.
[2] To some misguided and less culturally rich people than me, “The City” means New York, or, *ugh* D.C. To me, “The City” will always be San Francisco.
[3] In fact, my wife and I stayed in a youth hostel in Klamath, CA for part of our honeymoon. And, after our kids get a little older, we’ll stay in youth hostels on family vacations. I guess that makes our family more Bohemian than your family, even if we don't raise our own chickens.
[4] Gas was cheaper; the average nightly cost of staying at youth hostels was around $12; a meal of vegetarian tacos at Taco Bell cost $4; I took breakfast food along; blah, blah, blah. In other words, $1600 only sounds too little because you’re a spoiled bourgeois leech. That, and prices and have gone up in the intervening decade. 
[5] Yes, a moose. In Georgia. Don’t ask. If you’ve been reading my posts, you shouldn’t have to ask.
[6] Should be obvious why not.
[7] Which deserves its own story in and of itself. It involves me standing in a garage bay physically threatening a mechanic who was roughly twice my size. It didn’t end well for me.
[8] Getting a check for acting doesn’t mean that you can actually afford to live. Take note want-to-be actors. Your life will consist of ramen noodles, no furniture, and the occasional humiliating phone call to your parents asking for help.
[9] Don’t misunderstand, I’m not encouraging anyone to bartend at large nightclubs, but there is no denying that working there was fun – and often times “good” fun. Oftentimes “bad” fun, too, but …
[10] Ramen noodles are cheaper, but, at least at the time, it was incredibly difficult to find ramen without beef or chicken extract in the seasoning. I may not have been able to afford to continue being a vegan, but I was not giving up vegetarianism and animal rights just yet.
[11] Although my adbusters and “marxist” mentality made the prospect of working at chain unpalatable for me, the main reason I didn’t want to work at a chain is that it’s hard to make money when a dude at corporate is enacting rules that inhabit the server’s ability to get tips – things like limiting how many tables a server can have. That, and the fact that meals at chains tend to be cheaper, and the people who eat at a chain aren’t generally good tippers. 
[12] A quick pull back off the curtain – I do not yet know how to adequately describe those nights. My hope is that as I revise this post into the longer chapter, my ability as a writer will catch up with my existential pain during those nights.
[13] I don’t know if that’s corporate policy (it’s an odd policy, if so), or, and more likely, an indicator that the store manager had control issues.
[14] For what it’s worth, I’m actually proud of participating in that march. Except that’s where I met people from the commune.
[15] I had also started writing poetry. I still have the poetry. No, you may not read them.

3 comments:

  1. I thank God for putting John and I together that day. At the time God was doing a gracious work in my own life. Part of that work was realizing that I had a responsibility to demonstrate and express Christ's love to people who were different than the people in "The Village" in which I was living. In many ways John reminded me of myself when I was his age. We both have much for which to thank God!

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